History of Bridge Street Church
(Excerpted from the monograph, “The History of the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church” by Dr. Amos M. Jordan, Church Historian, January 2008.)
The Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest continuing black congregation in Brooklyn. This unique congregation, located in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, was organized in 1766 and incorporated in 1818. It traces its missionary origins to Captain Thomas Webb, a British convert of John Wesley and the father of Methodism in America.
HIGHLIGHTS OF CHURCH HISTORY
- 1766: Captain Thomas Webb begins holding open-air services in downtown Brooklyn.
- 1794: The mixed congregation--of Caucasians, free Negroes, and ex-slaves--purchases land from Joshua Sands and builds a small church, the Sands Street Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church. The congregation grows rapidly and needs a larger place to worship.
- 1810: A new church is completed and named the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn; it has a mixed congregation of 1,500 members.
- 1810–1817: As black church membership increases rapidly, relations between blacks and whites deteriorate. White members want blacks to pay $10 per quarter to worship in the galleries. Black members withdraw from the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Brooklyn and worship temporarily in one another’s homes.
- May 14, 1817: They form a society to buy land for a new church, agreeing to pay 50 cents a month into a fund. By fall, $130 has been raised.
- January 12, 1818: The male members of the society meet to choose trustees. They send a delegation to Philadelphia to Bishop Richard Allen of the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church. The AWME Church agrees to send a preacher for the new church and to ordain several of the delegates as local preachers.
- January 19, 1818: Peter and Benjamin Croger go before Magistrate John Garrison in Kings County Court of Common Pleas to file a Certificate of Election.
- February 7, 1818: The certificate is approved by the the court, and the First African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church is incorporated in the Village of Brooklyn.
- July 21, 1819: The church corporation purchases land on the east side of High Street near Jay Street, where it builds the First African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church in Brooklyn.
- February 17, 1824: Peter Croger is elected the first delegate to the General Conference of the AME Church held in Baltimore.
- July 4, 1827: Slavery is abolished in New York State.
- 1827: The men of the AWME Church set up an educational system for colored youngsters. On September 25, they lay the cornerstone of the African Free School (known as Colored School #10) under the direction of Henry C. Thompson, an AWME Church trustee.
- 1838: James Weeks, an African-American, buys a plot of land from Henry C. Thompson in the Ninth Ward of central Brooklyn; it will become the center of Weeksville.
- July 12, 1854: The AWME Church buys the property at 309 Bridge Street from the trustees of the First Congregational Church for $12,000. On the first Sunday in August, the Rev. James Morris Williams, the 21st pastor of the AWME Church, marches his congregation from High Street to their new church home on Bridge Street.
- December 31, 1862–January 2, 1863: Bridge Street AWME Church hosts a historic three-day celebration of freedom before, during, and after President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing four million American men, women, and children from slavery.
- December 4, 1938: The Rev. Mansfield E. Jackson, the 52nd pastor of the AWME Church, marches his congregation from 309 Bridge Street to their new church home at 277 Stuyvesant Avenue, purchased from the Grace Presbyterian Church.
- February 2000: The church enters its third century of service under the pastorate of the Rev. David B. Cousin, Sr., the 60th pastor of this historic congregation and one of five preaching sons of Bishop Philip R. Cousin of the AME Church.
- February 2001: The church celebrates its 235th Anniversary and marks the occasion by releasing The History of AWME Church, Volume II, an account of the congregation and its pastorates and ministries from 1766 to 2000.
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Proclamation and freed four million African American men, women, and children. The Bridge Street Church remained open all day as word spread and people arrived to express their joy--as well as their concern about the ongoing Civil War--in meetings, speeches, prayers and songs.
On January 2, the church presented a formal program of speakers, including African-American historian William Wells Brown and abolitionist Theodore Tilton.
The Bridge Street Church played a prominent role in the anti-slavery movement as an abolitionist meeting place and a “station” on the Underground Railroad, hiding freedom seekers in the church basement. Other Brooklyn churches did the same, including Plymouth Congregational, Siloam Presbyterian, and Concord Baptist. Brooklyn was also home to such local abolitionist leaders as Henry Ward Beecher, Henry Highland Garnet, J.W.C. Pennington, James Gloucester, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and John H. Raymond (a founder of Polytechnic University). Brooklyn became a national hub of abolitionist and anti-slavery activities, the nation’s first human rights campaign.
In February 1863, the nation’s leading civil rights activist Frederick Douglass spoke at the Bridge Street Church, delivering a stirring speech on the need for black soldiers in the Union ranks. A few weeks later, Douglass used the Bridge Street address to launch his historic “Men of Color, To Arms” campaign, which recruited 200,000 African-American soldiers to the Union cause.
In October 1865, Harriet Tubman, the nation’s most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, visited the church. According to The Brookyn Daily Eagle, she was welcomed by an immense congregation--half of it whites--and hailed for her heroism as a Union scout and nurse. At the time, the church organist was Susan Smith McKinney, 18, who was born and raised in Weeksville. She was an activist in missionary work and the suffragist movement, and she became the first African-American woman to earn a medical degree in New York State.